- Adam Rubin, ESPN Staff Writer
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ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is viewed as a genius by his team's fan base.
Mets manager Jerry Manuel? Well, let's just leave it as the perception among the Flushing faithful isn't as kind.
So, after an epic 20-inning marathon in which the Mets were no-hit into the sixth inning, the Cardinals used two position players as pitchers, Francisco Rodriguez blew the save in his first opportunity this season, Jose Reyes absolved him by delivering the go-ahead sacrifice fly an inning later and Mike Pelfrey recorded the save on a day he already threw a 70-pitch between-starts bullpen session, you have to wonder this:
How would Manuel have fared on the New York talk-radio airwaves come Monday had he twice allowed a relief pitcher to bat with the bases loaded and two out in extra innings in his home ballpark?
Better yet, would Manuel be employed Monday? Or would he be back home in Sacramento?
After all, La Russa had his backup catcher available to pinch hit in what ultimately became a 2-1 Mets victory.
And consider this wrinkle before computing the likely fan-base eruption had Manuel been in the home dugout:
Matt Holliday -- signed to a seven-year, $120 million contract during the offseason -- had been removed earlier in the game, albeit because of illness and fatigue, leaving those relief pitchers in the cleanup spot as the protection for slugger Albert Pujols.
Of course, Pujols twice was intentionally walked to load the bases, in the 12th and 14th innings. And, of course, relievers Jason Motte and Blake Hawksworth ultimately struck out to end those threats. La Russa did not want to use his final bench player, backup catcher Bryan Anderson, because he had only one pitcher left in the bullpen -- closer Ryan Franklin, who is not equipped to go long.
"Me? Oh, you know what would have happened to me," Manuel said with a hearty laugh about the vilification had he pulled those maneuvers. "But I haven't won World Series like he has.
"You don't know. I don't get into what everybody else does. It's just what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish. I can't get into that."
Still, Manuel noted regarding the approach to Pujols: "Once that showed up, we decided, 'Hey, we're not going to let him beat us. We don't have anybody behind him.' We just kind of managed it in that form and fashion."
Said right fielder Jeff Francoeur: "That was a break for us, for once. It seemed like we got some breaks tonight finally to go our way.
"Back in '05 in the playoffs I played an 18-inning game with the Astros. But this was totally different because you just felt like no one was ever going to get a hit. You knew nobody was going to get a home run. Everybody was swinging for it. Everybody was tired."
In the end, in a six-hour, 53-minute epic in which the teams used a combined 46 players -- including Cardinals position players Felipe Lopez and Joe Mather as relief pitchers and Mets starting pitchers John Maine as a pinch runner and Jon Niese as a pinch hitter -- the Mets escaped with a desperately needed victory.
It was the longest game, inning-wise, since the Mets lost to the Cardinals 4-3 in a franchise-record 25 innings at Shea Stadium on Sept. 11, 1974. That game lasted longer time-wise, too: seven hours, four minutes. The only other lengthier game time-wise came in the second game of a doubleheader on May 31, 1964 -- a seven-hour, 23-minute loss to the San Francisco Giants in 23 innings.
"We went through every single situation that you can imagine, that you can think of out there," said left-hander Johan Santana, who blanked the Cardinals for seven innings despite requiring 54 pitches over the first two frames. "You see all kinds of things. And, at the end, you see a position player losing the game, a closer winning the game and a starter saving the game. I've never seen that before."
The Mets were no-hit by opposing starter Jaime Garcia until Angel Pagan led off the sixth inning with a single. They mustered only nine hits in what qualified as the length of more than two games. Yet they improved to 4-7.
As hollow -- or as reminiscent of the Art Howe era -- as it sounds, the Mets have "battled" during a rough road trip. And on a day that began with Francoeur giving an impassioned defense of his embattled manager, the Mets gave a better effort than those '07 and '08 teams in September that won so many more games overall.
"They were fighting all day," Manuel said. "Fighting all day to stay in the game. We just couldn't mount nothing offensively. We just couldn't get anything going offensively. But, to their credit, they went out and played on the other side of the ball, and played very well. That's a sign of things to come for us."
In the 16th inning, after Ryan Ludwick and Pujols singled with one out, and with Hawksworth again due up, La Russa finally went for the victory by pinch hitting with Anderson. The backup catcher, called up with Jason LaRue on the disabled list, sent a ball to second base too slowly for the Mets to turn a double play. Luis Castillo retired Pujols at second base, but Ludwick did not stop at third. He was caught breaking for the plate and comfortably retired.
Two innings later, after Franklin had been used and exhausted, La Russa turned to his third baseman Lopez on the mound. He somehow wiggled through the half-inning.
Another position player, Mather, didn't fare as well in the 19th. Reyes walked. Castillo bunted him to second. David Wright was intentionally walked. Jason Bay was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Francoeur produced a sacrifice fly for the game's opening run.
"I was so nervous because I thought, 'You know, if you get a hit, or do whatever, you're supposed to. And if you don't, you look bad,'" Francoeur said. "That was a lot of fun. The only regret is I wish I would have gotten to throw an inning in there. I was ready to go. I throw a little bit in the outfield when we're messing around."
Manuel, who managed to hold back K-Rod, instead could comfortably summon his closer for the save.
Well, almost comfortably.
K-Rod was gassed after warming up 10 different times in the bullpen and throwing more than 100 pitches. And Yadier Molina, who infamously homered off Aaron Heilman in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series, prolonged the affair by singling with two out to score Pujols and force a 20th inning.
"Honestly, I was totally 'dead arm' out there," Rodriguez said. "Even the radar gun out there was showing the opposite. I didn't feel well. But, you know, the bottom line is we got the W."
That's because Reyes gave the Mets another lead with the sacrifice fly off Mather.
"That's the happiest 0-for-7 of my whole life," said Reyes, whose bat or spikes are headed to the Hall of Fame. "We know they aren't going to throw too much strikes, so we just had to be looking for the right pitch and try to drive it."
Pelfrey, who had tossed seven scoreless innings in Colorado two days earlier, earned the improbable save after volunteering to pitch. He became the first regular starting pitcher to earn a save with the Mets since Dwight Gooden tossed four innings in relief against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sept. 19, 1989.
"I kept trying to tell myself there was a reason I wasn't hitting -- maybe because I was going to get to pitch," Pelfrey quipped. "Everyone was giving me heck that everybody else was hitting before me. Really, right there, when K-Rod came in, I said, 'Hey, I'm the only guy left,' since [Oliver] Perez threw last night. I knew I felt fine and I could go."
Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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